I pretty much despise Zack Snyder’s aesthetics and utterly disagree with his view of heroes and heroism, and from what I saw on the screen in Wonder Woman, so does Patty Jenkins. Her film marks a radical departure from the bleak and colorless world that Snyder created, and it has been very positively received by a large segment of the audience, breaking box office records.
Naturally, the response from women was understandable; Wonder Woman was created as a feminist icon in the 1940s, was embraced as THE feminist icon in the 1970s (even appearing on the cover of the first issue of Ms. Magazine), and has been one of the very few female superheroes marketed to girls for the last 50 years. It was important that this film hit the right notes and have the right message, and Jenkins delivered.
What’s not so understandable is the reaction from a small-but-noisy contingent of men; what is it about this film that provokes such anger and hostility in certain quarters? A lot of writers have discussed the various aspects of what the increased visibility of women in fandom might mean, from changing standards of behavior to changes in content in order to appeal to this seemingly new audience. Some men take these things as threats, apparently because they have a “zero-sum” view of the world; there can only be so many movies, and more of one kind automatically means less of another. They think that if women like a different take on genre films, the studio might decide to make more movies in that vein and stop making them the old way, and once again those mean ol’ girls are taking something away from the He-Man Woman-Haters Club. So what are the things in Wonder Woman that seem like such a threat to these guys?
Aside from all the well-documented and discussed cliches that a lot of other sites have already dissected (a stroll through the gender cliches at TVTropes will unearth a multitude of standard offenses, from voyeuristic camerawork to turning the heroine into a damsel in distress to the ever-present “mansplaining”), I think there’s one thing in particular that’s a sticking point; I think what bothers them more than anything is that Diana’s fight matters, and not just to her.
My friend Morts suggested that the big battle scene in Wonder Woman has a metatextual component; Ares represents the Zack Snyder view of the DC Universe, dark and grim and carrying the assumption that people are horrible, while Diana stands in opposition to to that mindset, believing in hope and love and that people can be better. It’s a clever conceit that may have some truth to it. It’s worth noting that the climactic battle is the part critics have most complained about, saying that it doesn’t fit with the rest of the movie. Because it doesn’t. It seems to me that the big showdown is Jenkins’ concession to the genre. The audience expects their Thunderdome sequence and she obliges, but first spends considerable time telling us what’s really important, and it isn’t the ‘splosions.
For several years, one of the popular forums at CBR has been the Rumbles Forum, in which participants debate “who would win in a fight between _____ and _____?”. The reasons why Lobo and Sonic the Hedgehog are fighting in the first place never matter in the slightest; the players are only interested in the fight. The point is to have a big superhero knockdown, a steel cage grudge-match with lots of noise and busted furniture, where the combatants declare a winner and the fight ends; a super-powered WWE bout.
Superhero movies have adopted this model; virtually all of them build up to a third act showdown in which the face and heel will battle to establish dominance. In most superhero movies, the innocent bystanders have no idea what’s going on, they just hope it stops soon. When a movie deviates from this model and its attendant collateral damage (Dr. Strange outsmarting Dormammu instead of beating him up, for example), these fanboys don’t like it.
The biggest problem with Superman V Batman, to cite the most obvious example, is that there’s really no story. It’s not a movie, it’s a sizzle reel of his favorite fight scenes, completely divorced from the context that made those scenes matter in the comics. Zack Snyder has been very open about the fact that he created the film by picking out a dozen or so favorite sequences from as many comics and stitched them together as best he could. Wonder Woman attempts to strike at the heart of that mindset.
Superman’s big fight in Man of Steel was this sort of macho posturing until he finally had to get real (so that afterward he could be all guilty and mopey about killing Zod). This reflects an element of toxic masculinity, the need to claim hierarchy. Men often fight the way dogs do; ritualized pseudo-combat that goes until one party rolls over and surrenders. Boys on the playground do it; gorillas do it to determine who will be the silverback; guys in bars do it; keyboard warriors on the internet do it verbally, and nobody is supposed to get too upset about it. It’s just jousting, proving “who is the better man,” and “boys will be boys.” Superman and Batman are not heroes in Snyder’s world; they are titans, demigods who flex their powers not to protect the innocent, but to test themselves. It’s Fight Club with capes.
But a real fight is war; not a game, not jousting, not a contest. It’s a battle, not to determine superiority, but to protect oneself and loved ones. Superman’s code about not killing is based on the fact that he has that luxury. He has to pull his punches and hold back all the time or he’d kill everyone he ever fought, at least until he met Zod. Once he understood Zod’s power and willingness to use it, Superman should have been looking for an opportunity to put him in the ground, and should not feel any regret for having done so.
This point is made effectively in Orson Scott Card’s novel, Ender’s Game, though they pretty much glossed over it in the movie version; “Ender” got his nickname because if someone starts a fight with him, he ends it, as quickly and brutally as possible; his goal is not only to win the fight, but also to prevent any future fights. By fighting savagely and remorselessly, he lets everyone know that starting something with him would carry a cost. Ender holds to a philosophy that I believe in: “There’s no such thing as a fair fight.” Do everything you can to avoid a fight, but if you have to fight (and that’s only to defend yourself or someone else from a clear and present threat), Marquess of Queensberry rules do not apply. If you’re attacked, if you can’t de-escalate the conflict, get away, or outsmart the attacker, you fight back. If you have to fight, fight dirty; find a weapon and use it, show no mercy, and make damn sure the instigator never starts anything with you again. As a side-note, if you go into a fight fully willing and able to kill your opponent if necessary, you’re a lot less likely to start those fights.
This “contest” element is missing in the setup to Wonder Woman’s confrontation with Ares, at least from her side; she’s not fighting to prove herself, she’s fighting to end a threat once and for all, and it raises the stakes. Here, the people are not just helpless civilians; they’re already engaged in a battle for their lives and country, and Diana represents a chance to alter the outcome, rather than a clash of giants that promises to destroy the neighborhood and accomplish little else. Even with the allegedly studio-demanded CGI excesses, her fight has more urgency and matters more, because she’s not just trying to beat Ares, she’s trying to stop him from carrying out his plan, and she’s also trying to stop him from ever carrying out any future plans. She is trying to kill him, because that’s the only way to stop him from trying again. I think the dudes who just want to see a rumble don’t like that. An honest, dirty, deliberate fight to the death has too many moral ambiguities, and it precludes the possibility of a rematch.
This difference in approach is also evident in the tone of the film. In the real world, we recognize that the dictator running North Korea is a ridiculous cartoon of a spoiled man-child, but we have to take him seriously because he has nukes. He doesn’t have to look like Stalin or sound like Hitler. And so it is in the movies and comics; the heroes can be funny, the tone can be light and the costumes silly, the villains witty or goofy, as long as the threat they represent is credible and urgent. If the danger feels real, the audience will accept any number of absurdities. But if the climactic battle is a pointless display of carnage without consequence carried out to no purpose, then a relentlessly serious tone is required in order to convince the audience that it’s all believable.
It may well be that after Wonder Woman, nobody’s going to take the currently popular “challenge to determine who will be the alpha” conflicts seriously, and that will make the movies’ whole bleak aesthetic laughable. (I once joked on Facebook that I hope they someday release Batman V. Superman in color.) All those stylistic choices, making a summer morning in Kansas look like Seattle in February, are there to generate an illusion of seriousness because nothing in the story matters; it’s all just sturm und drang dressing up a film that’s as deep as a puddle of ant pee. But when the fight is real and really matters, as Marvel’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier demonstrated, bright colors in broad daylight can be just as serious; the desaturated gloom is unnecessary. The guys who hated Wonder Woman are really just afraid they won’t get more iterations of Eternally Grim Metropolis Smackdown if the studios decide to make superhero movies that have a point instead.
Now, I could be completely wrong about this; maybe these guys don’t like Wonder Woman because she makes them feel inferior, or they are put off by Diana’s absolute refusal to defer to the men, kowtow to societal dictates as to how proper ladies should comport themselves, or feel that the male characters are being diminished and trivialized for political “SJW” reasons (utterly disregarding 75 years of Wonder Woman history, twenty centuries of Amazonian legends, and Steve Trevor and his team’s demonstrated courage and heroism in their part of the film; at no point does the film diminish or sideline the men in order to make Diana look better), and my observation about the nature of the fight scenes is so much balloon juice. Nonetheless, I hope that in the sequel (and in the upcoming Justice League movie) Diana continues to fight for reasons that matter beyond her own ego.